Aquinas in a Bottle: An Interview with Donny Sebastiani Jr., Part 1

The Sebastiani family has been making and selling wine in California for over one hundred years. The latest incarnation of the family business, Don Sebastiani and Sons, was launched in 2001 as an international wine negociant. Several years ago the company introduced the “Aquinas” label of Napa Valley wines. Thinking that our readers might be interested in knowing more about the Aquinas line, last month we spoke with Donny Sebastiani, Jr., who is the executive director of Don Sebastiani and Sons.  We are publishing the interview in two parts. The first part is below. The second part will appear next week.

*** How long has your family been in the wine business?

Donny Sebastiani: We have been, as a group, as clan, making wine for a little more than a hundred years, at least in California. My great grandfather, Samuele Sebastiani emigrated from Italy, came to New York, and eventually made his way to Sonoma, where he began making wine, which he sold to his neighbors. This was right around 1904 and that is when we think of the Sebastiani winery as beginning. He ran the winery and got involved in a lot of other things too; he was a pretty entrepreneurial guy. He was deep in the real estate around the city of Sonoma. He was a very successful guy even during the Depression. He did on a local scale what Roosevelt was doing on a national scale with make-work projects. He was heavy in cash and put people to work building the local grocery store, skating rink, hotel, and so on. Even when I was a kid back in the 1980s the Sebastiani name was all over the city. There was the Sebastiani Hotel, the Sebastiani Apartments, the Sebastiani Theater, etc.

But to follow the trail of the winery – when my great grandfather died in the mid-1940s my grandfather August Sebastiani took over the operation. At that time they were mostly making wine for other wineries to bottle. My grandfather continued that business but expanded it and started bottling other people’s wine and eventually began bottling wine with the Sebastiani label.

My grandfather passed in 1980 and my Uncle Sam ran the business for five or six years, my dad ran it for fifteen years, and my aunt ran it for five or six years after that. When my dad took it over it was about a two million case winery and he grew it to an eight million case operation in fifteen years. He purchased a couple of wineries out in the Central Valley for popularly priced lower-end wine but then, in 2001, sold them to Constellation, the second biggest wine company in the US. In 2008 Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery was sold to Bill Foley.

After the sale of the Central Valley assets in 2001 we started Don Sebastiani and Sons, which is the company that we have today. Did you always want to be in the wine business or did you have other career ideas at some point?

Donny Sebastiani: When I was eighteen or nineteen years old I was more worried about what was for dinner and what the Giants were doing that night. That’s as deep as I got. I was never a “big picture” guy and I’m still kind of not. But I think that I’m a very competitive guy and a goal-oriented guy. But I was never like those people who you read about, you know, rich businessmen or professional athletes, who make contracts with themselves – “I will do this….”

I guess that I always deep down supposed that I would be working for the family company; it’s a great opportunity, it’s a lot of fun, I mean, c’mon it’s the wine business. There are a lot of businesses that are a lot of fun to be in. I could be the general manager of the 49ers or something. There aren’t many things that I’m qualified to do besides run a wine business. But it’s something I love. Had I gone into investment banking or if I was a general contractor, my friends probably would have said, “Why did you do that? Your family owns a winery. What are you doing?” What do you like best about your work?

Donny Sebastiani: Working for my family I’m able to keep a good work/life balance. Working investment banker hours, I don’t know that I would be able to live the way that I want to. Working for my family affords me a more flexible schedule. But also I try to promote that sort of culture at the company. You know, if someone has to go home and pick up their kid or something like that, I try to make that possible. It’s not a 9 to 5 world anymore. People are checking their email at night, they’re on their i-Phones, they’re waiting in line at the airport and checking their Twitter account to see what’s going on. Some of that may be just the way the world is but it’s also the company my dad has always tried to run and it’s also something I try to foster. That’s probably the thing that I’m the most proud of, creating that type of environment. My kids know my name and I go to school with them twice a week. I’m pretty lucky to be able to do that.

A better answer to your question about what I like best about my work might be the blockbuster cabernets that we make but the reality is that you could go to work for someone who makes blockbuster cabernets and not have that work/life balance and I don’t know that I would want that sort of job. Your family produces wines under several labels. Smoking Loon and Pepperwood Grove are probably the most widely known and the most widely available. But I think our readers will be most interested in your Aquinas wines. Whose idea was this line? Why “Aquinas”?

Donny Sebastiani: Brand brainstorming, ideation, whatever you want to call it, is kind of fuzzy. It’s usually not a linear progression: “First we did this, then we decided this.” The idea for the trademark itself – I think I came up with it, but if somebody showed me some videotape of a meeting room where someone else came up with the idea, I would believe it because it might have happened.

As for the specifics of it, it’s tough finding a trademark in general and the wine business is no exception. You are limited by what you can use and you look internally for inspiration. And our faith, our Catholic faith, is important to us. That’s where the inspiration for the name came from.

Wine has a significant place in Catholicism. You see people making and drinking wine in the Old Testament and New Testament. You see Jesus and his disciples drinking wine.

With the “Aquinas” label we saw a natural opportunity to have something with a bit of a Catholic aspect to it. Obviously we want to market ourselves to a wide consumer base, so you don’t want to beat people over the head with a big picture of a crucifix on the label. But the Aquinas wines are still a clear, less than subtle reference to our faith. It was a natural, obvious choice. We have people of all different denominations that sell it. But they get it and they enjoy selling it.

There is also the fact that education was important for Aquinas and it is important for our family too. We have done a lot to support education locally. We helped to start The Presentation School in Sonoma and my mother is president of the board there.


In Part 2 of this interview next week Donny will talk about the different varietals bottled under the Aquinas label and about his personal favorite. You can learn more about the Aquinas wines on the label’s page at the Don Sebastiani and Sons website.


UPDATE 11/20/2011: I just found out that Mark also posted on Aquinas wines back in 2006. Great minds…